La Vie en Rose
A Song for You…
In 1985, the first time I visited Paris, I was alone, a bit love-sick, naive, and interested in just about everything. My quest (I always was on a quest of some sort or another in those days), was to try to touch the underbelly of the city. I wanted to feel the same stink of the place that the Lost Generation loved, and learn what it was three generations before them that drew the likes of Charles Sumner, James Fenimore Cooper, John Singer Sargent, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Samuel Morse to the banks of the Seine.
Wandering through the Rive Gauche one night, I stumbled (literally) into a basement bar below a cafe. It was seedy and stank of stale cigarettes and cheap wine that stained the floor. The smoke hung thick from the ceiling. In the back of the cellar, there was a tiny stage, about six inches high, and maybe four-by-six feet wide. There was a guitar on a stand, an old accordion on the floor, and a piano in the corner next to the stage. It was a beatnik-type open mic that night, and for only a moment I thought about jumping up and doing a tune, but the only song I could play all the way through at the time was ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man. Even drunk in Paris, my embarrassment had bounds. Apparently.
As I drank some of the terrible wine at a little table, I watched an old woman, who appeared to be homeless and intoxicated, shuffle toward the stage. I thought she might be trying to find les toilettes, but being Paris, I was worried she'd cop a squat right on the stage. The bathrooms were in the front.
It took her a good while to negotiate the six-inch stage, but eventually, she made it, looked around, and spied the piano. It took another three minutes to step off the stage and finally, listing pretty hard to starboard, she found the piano and sat down.
I was praying her hair was a wig (it’s as indescribable now as it was thirty-five years ago), and it looked like a sightless person had applied her fire-engine-red lipstick.
She lovingly, lightly touched the keys and started playing slowly. She folded her dirty fingers through a few measures, and it was perfect. With a low, tired, smoker's voice, she sang one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. The look in her eyes as she sang was clear enough; she sang for some lost love — or a child, God forbid, or for her sad, remembered youth. Or perhaps worse; for a prosperous, happy, beautiful youth.
The song was haunting. It made me pine for things I had never known, and, strangely, made me think of all the sweethearts of soldiers killed in wars fought long before I was born.
It was a beautiful rendition of La Vie en Rose, and it made me cry.